If you’re like me, you saw Northeastern sweep Alabama-Huntsville on the opening weekend and you just yawned. Big deal. It would have been news only had the Huskies lost.
Then they swept Holy Cross and that was becoming a bit more noteworthy, but skepticism would continue to reign until Northeastern came out on top over more prominent foes.
A split at St. Lawrence amounted to step in the right direction, but two losses to Boston College were steps backward, albeit small ones, especially in light of taking one of the two to overtime.
Then the Huskies defeated Massachusetts-Lowell.
Now, I thought, we’re talking. Even if the River Hawks seemed to be hitting the post or crossbar with regularity, there was no discounting this win. The Huskies had defeated a team I expected to be in contention for the national title by the end of the year.
This was not “your father’s Huskies.” Forget about the team that had missed the playoffs three of the last four years. This was a playoff team, not just because this season all the teams make the playoffs, but because it was too good to miss the playoffs in any year.
Yeah, New Hampshire then swept them, but since then, it’s been all good: a sweep of Merrimack, then a shootout win over Western Michigan to advance in the Shillelagh Tournament, followed by a win over 11th-ranked Notre Dame on its home ice to take the tourney.
Northeastern is 9-5-1, ranked 19th and can count road wins at Lowell and Notre Dame. What’s not to like?
“We’re a team that is continuing to develop,” Northeastern coach Jim Madigan says. “We’ve talked about this being a process. We’ve got a lot of young players, and our goal was to just to get better each week.
“We’re more worried about the process than the wins and losses. Certainly, we know we’re measured by wins and losses, and there’s a focus on that, but if we continue to do the right things, create good habits, work hard and continue with the process, then we think we’re going to have some success and get better each week. I think, for the most part, we’ve gotten better each weekend series.
“It’s early, but I like where we’re at. But there’s a long, long way to go. We’ve come off a good weekend but we’re faced with the No. 1 team in Hockey East: [Providence].
“That’s what drives us. Our kids are driven, knowing that the league is so competitive and you have to bring it every weekend.”
As it turns out, those early wins that generated mostly yawns from people like me were by design. Although Madigan hadn’t projected a year or more earlier that the Huskies would be coming off a non-playoff year and might need a healthy dose of confidence-building — is there a coach alive that expects to miss an eight-team playoff in a 10-team league? — he could project some of the other characteristics of this year’s team and knew he didn’t want a schedule that would prove too daunting.
All opponents can be difficult and no matchup can be taken lightly, but not all opponents are created equal. Opening with a few matchups that looked easier on paper made a lot of sense.
“There was a little strategy behind it,” Madigan says. “We were looking for some balanced scheduling, knowing that we were going to have a young team, knowing that we were going to have potentially young goaltenders.
“You do your scheduling a year or so in advance, so I didn’t know [at that time] that Clay Witt wasn’t going to play last year, but I knew that we were going to have some inexperienced goaltenders who hadn’t played an awful lot, because Chris Rawlings had played so much.
“Then we were thinking that we were going to have maybe eight freshman. Instead, we’ve probably played nine at this point or 10.
“Our Hockey East schedule is competitive as it is, and then we knew we were going to be in the Notre Dame tournament. We knew we were playing a good opponent at the Dartmouth tournament.
“So we were looking for some competitive balance along with trying to get some home games.”
Witt has been a major stabilizing force. After playing only 16 games over three years, including just one early one last season, he’s seized the top job with a vengeance, recording a 2.08 GAA and a .939 save percentage.
“He’s a very athletic goaltender, but he hasn’t played a lot,” Madigan says. “Last year, he was ready to challenge for the No. 1 position when he came down with a minor knee issue that took a little bit longer to recover from, and that took him basically through Dec. 1. We made a decision to redshirt him. It was too bad because he had played so well through training camp.
“We had always had confidence in him but he just hadn’t played because Chris Rawlings was the guy for all his four years here. But because of his competitiveness and inner drive, Clay worked hard again this summer and it [paid off].
“His athleticism allows him to make some saves that some other goalies wouldn’t because he is so athletic. He covers the net really well, and he’s got good size.”
While everyone expected Kevin Roy to star again and Braden Pimm to again be a top scorer, few expected the freshmen to contribute so significantly right away. Mike Szmatula ranks second only to Roy in scoring, just three points behind. Dalen Hedges ranks fourth; he and Szmatula have already scored five goals each. Zach Aston-Reese has also cracked double-digits in points.
“The freshmen have brought a high degree of hockey sense and intelligence, which is what we recruited,” Madigan says. “There’s good energy and there’s good skill.
“We’re playing four freshmen centericemen. I don’t know if there’s another team in the country that’s playing four freshmen centers.
“They’re all different: Szmatula, who brings high energy and is very gifted offensively; John Stevens, who has hockey intelligence — his dad is an NHL coach and it shows — and makes plays; Hedges has a father who’s in the NHL business — he’s smaller in stature but has real good stick; to Tanner Pond who hasn’t scored, but has been really effective with energy and bringing great forechecking ability.
“Aston-Reese has had some points and has made some key contributions for us. Defenseman Matt Benning’s dad played in the NHL, and his uncle is an assistant GM.
“So all real high-end intelligence. That’s what we wanted. We got it, I think, in those players.”
When asked if his team’s success has prompted him to set some specific goals, Madigan shoots the idea down fast.
“No, we’re staying away from that, quite frankly,” he says. “We’re just looking to get better each week. When you have a young team, that plays really well.
“Hey, they want to get better, they’re hungry for coaching, they’re hungry to get better. That’s how they’ve performed this year. That’s how they’ve approached each and every week. We’re going to get better today, we’re going to get better each week and then the games come on the weekend and we get to show what we learned during the course of the week.”
Better than their record
If you look at Massachusetts’ season so far, there are clear high points. The Minutemen swept Michigan State early, took three of four league points from Maine, tied Boston College in one game and probably should have tied them in another only to lose due to a controversial video replay of an offsides.
Even so, their record still stands at 3-10-2 overall and 1-6-2 in Hockey East, ahead of only winless Merrimack.
“We’ve been happy with our play an awful lot, but not happy with our record,” UMass coach John Micheletto says.
The play, however, has suffered of late with the Minutemen mired in an 0-6-1 stretch.
“[In] the last couple of outings, we’ve not been the team we were earlier in the year, just in terms of our play,” Micheletto says. “[We haven’t shown] the energy that we brought earlier this season even [while losing to] BU and Lowell on the opening weekend and then during the three-point weekend against Maine and here at home against Michigan State.
“We’ve put some good efforts together, but we’ve also had some nights that didn’t go our way and we didn’t respond well.
“We’re hoping that November was a good teaching month for us. I’d rather have that happen in November than in February or March.”
UMass’ struggles have been particularly pronounced on the road, where at 0-7-1 it’s still looking for its first win. The Minutemen, however, are hardly alone in this respect (see the segment that follows), and Micheletto doesn’t see issues specific to leaving the Mullins Center.
“It’s been no different than at home,” he says. “I haven’t really seen that our preparations have been different. The same problems that have plagued us in road games have also [done so] overall. It’s just worked out that the results haven’t come.”
On a positive note, a couple of the freshmen have made an immediate impact. Steven Iacobellis ranks tied for second in scoring and Ray Pigozzi trails by only a point. Otherwise, the top nine scorers are all seniors.
Goaltender Mac Haight also played well in the home-and-home series against BC, filling in for an injured Steve Mastalerz and allowing only two goals each night to the explosive Eagles.
“Ray Pigozzi and Steven Iacobellis have played pretty prominent roles for us in the early going,” Micheletto says. “They’ve seen power-play time and have been productive both five-on-five and on the power play. Steven kills penalties and is good over the dots for us. So those two guys have had an immediate impact.
“But we’ve had some other guys as well. Brandon Wahlin has played very well. [Defensemen] Marc Hetnik and Brennan Baxandall as well as [sophomore transfer] Ben Gallacher, who’s been as good as anybody for us.
“We’ve been really encouraged with their play so far. I think that as we get into the second half of the season and they’re even more comfortable with their transition into college and have pushed through the early struggles that all freshmen seem to have, they’re going to have even bigger impact for us.”
Unfortunately, the road doesn’t get any easier for the Minutemen. Their next four games are away from the Mullins Center, with the next two at Notre Dame.
“It will be our first flight of the year,” Micheletto says. “So we’re talking about the difference of the routine. As the academic semester starts to wind down, our student-athletes also have a lot of things on their plates. [So we need to] make sure they take care of their school work and their health and make sure that we’re going in there as clear-headed and healthy as we can.
“From a play standpoint, Notre Dame is going to be a great foe, as most of the games are in league play. We’re trying to focus on what their strengths are and make sure that we can negate them while taking advantage of ours.”
At least at first glance, home ice has been a bigger advantage this year than in the past.
Last season, the bottom four teams in the league (Maine, Vermont, Massachusetts and Northeastern) all had decidedly losing records at home (a cumulative 20-39-12).
This year, every single Hockey East team has played at least .500 hockey in their own barn.
Four teams, however, are still looking for their first road win: Boston University (0-4), Maine (0-5-1), Merrimack (0-6-1) and UMass (0-7-1).
The two teams with the greatest disparity? Maine with its 6-1 mark at Alfond and 0-5-1 elsewhere, and BU’s 6-2-1 mark at Agganis and 0-4 on the road.
First off, the season is still young and the dust may still settle in familiar patterns.
More likely, however, the wider differential between home and away performances points to the new league schedule. With seven new nonconference slots to fill, many of those open games are going to weaker teams from weaker conferences with the proviso that the “weakling” has to play in the Hockey East team’s rink.
Take a look at American International’s schedule as an example. AIC plays seven nonconference games, all on the road, all losses (so far). Or look at Sacred Heart, which also plays seven nonconference games, all on the road except for the front half of a home-and-home with Rensselaer. The Pioneers pulled off the stunning upset of Massachusetts-Lowell on opening night, but otherwise have lost each contest.
This is not to pick on Atlantic Hockey at all. It’s best teams have proven themselves beyond doubt and even its lesser teams like Sacred Heart have pulled off their upsets.
Overall, though, Hockey East has posted a 10-3 record over Atlantic Hockey with only one of those matchups coming on Atlantic ice.
It certainly looks like Hockey East schools are fattening up their home records at the expense of weaker teams they wouldn’t have scheduled in past years with fewer nonconference games.